Monday 12 June 2023

Firefighters of the Fiery Salient

Supplies of M4A2 tanks to the USSR began in late 1942. Unfortunately due to technical defects (chiefly to do with injectors) they did not see service right away. Only a few units received these tanks in the spring of 1943, but one of them ended up fighting in the most famous tank battle of the Great Patriotic War.

Firefighters of the fiery salient

The 229th Independent Tank Regiment was one of the first Soviet tank units to receive the new American medium tanks. 31 tanks of this type were issued to the unit on April 10th, 1943, and by the start of July the regiment had 38 functional Medium Tanks M4A2. The regiment was assigned to the 48th Army at the time. As of July 1st it was located in reserve in the village of Perehozheye. The regiment was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Merkulov with Major Bogatyrev serving as the Chief of Staff.

A very early M4A2 tank in Soviet service. This vehicle still has the return roller in the middle of the bogey, M34 gun mount with a narrow external mantlet, and direct vision ports

The regiment was moved to the vicinity of Kazakovka by July 5th, 1943. At the start of the Battle of Kursk the regiment had 1.2 loads of fuel per tank, three refills of ammunition, and 4 days worth of rations on hand. The Shermans got lucky, as the German spearhead struck west of them.

Their luck did not last long. A decision was made to pull up reserves in order to deflect the German attack at Ponyri. The commander of the 48th Army ordered the 229th regiment to pull up to the front. The regiment arrived at its new position near Ivanovka (20 km north-east of Maloarkhangelsk) after a night march at 04:00 on July 7th.

An intermediate model of an M4A2 tank on display at Victory Park in Moscow. This tank no longer has direct vision ports and now has the M34A1 gun mount with a wider mantlet. Later features like applique armour over the ammunition racks are not yet present.

The M4A2 tanks never got to fight as a part of the 48th Army. On July 9th the Commander of the Central Front reallocated the 229th regiment to the 13th Army, which stood in the way of the German XLI Tank Corps. At 03:00 on July 10th the regiment arrived at Leski (6 km south-east of Maloarkhangelsk) and reported to the commander of the 15th Rifle Corps. He ordered the regiment to guard the Tinyakovskiy farm in the sector of the 74th Rifle Division. On July 11th the regiment reported 39 functional tanks.

The enemy offensive continued. At 10:00 on July 11th the regiment was ordered to take the line height 255.6 - height 238.6 - Trosna on the right flank of the 74th Rifle Division and hold until infantry arrived. The attack was carried out not only without infantry cover, but also without proper reconnaissance. The result was predictable: upon reaching height 255.6 the first company of the regiment was fired upon from height 248.8 and had three of its tanks burned up. The company continued its advance but was tied up in fighting 15 German tanks and up to two battalions of infantry east of Protasovo. 10 tanks managed to punch through the German defenses and reach the south slope of height 255.6.

German penetration of the Soviet defenses on the north of the Kursk Salient. The M4A2 tanks of the 229th Independent Tank Regiment were fighting on the eastern flank of this dent in Soviet lines.

The second company was supposed to support the first one, but it was incapable of doing so since it was late to the battle. Luckily, the third company arrived at height 260.3 from where it could cover the retreat of the first company towards Vavilonovka. By then the second company had arrived, but its fire was ineffective. The third company also came under fire and was forced to retreat behind the hill. At 19:00 the third and fourth company rushed to attack height 255.6 on orders of the Chief of Staff of the 15th Rifle Corps. The Chief of Staff didn’t just force the tanks into battle, but also managed to coordinate a joint attack by tanks and infantry. As a result, the Shermans managed to take the height and allow the supporting infantry to dig in.

On the next day the enemy had made it to Grinevka. The 229th regiment was ordered to knock the enemy out of the village alongside the 78th Rifle Regiment of the 74th Rifle Division. The second company of Sherman tanks was attached to the rifle regiment for this attack. The company reached the village’s northern outskirts, but was fired upon from Protasovo and was forced to retreat. The attack was not repeated. On the night of July 13th all companies of the regiment retreated to the western outskirts of Vavilonovka. Over the two days of fighting 8 of the regiment’s tanks burned up and 11 were knocked out. 15 men were killed and 13 were wounded. The Commander of Armoured and Mechanized Forces of the Central Front blamed the staff of the 229th regiment for failing to not only organize artillery or infantry support for its tanks, but even to maintain cohesion between its own companies.

Even in this condition, the regiment claimed some significant victories: 6 enemy tanks and SPGs disabled, 5 anti-tank guns, 8 machine guns, 2 mortar batteries, and up to 350 enemy soldiers and officers killed.

Map of the 229th regiment’s counterattacks against the German offensive.

There were also heroes in these battles. Many crewmen were awarded medals for destroying enemy machine guns and infantry. Radio operator Junior Sergeant D.I. Aksenov’s M4A2 tank destroyed a medium tank, a tankette (presumably a Borgward demolition vehicle), 9 machine gun nests, and 19 Germans. A tank with loader Junior Sergeant P.I. Bogachev and radio operator V.M. Kochetkov among its crew destroyed an enemy medium tank, four machine gun nests, and killed up to 13 Germans. Loader Senior Sergeant V.A. Volkov’s tank destroyed one anti-tank gun, a dugout, and killed up to 17 Germans. Driver P.P. Bugayevskiy’s tank destroyed an anti-tank gun and killed up to 14 Germans.

Radio operator Junior Sergeant O.V. Goryachev, a crewman whose tank destroyed 4 mortar batteries, one machine gun nest, killed up to 20 Germans, and towed three tanks from the battlefield received the “For Battle Merit” medal, as did driver Senior Sergeant F.V. Lukyanov, whose crew knocked out an enemy tank, destroyed an anti-tank gun, two machine guns, and killed up to 20 Germans. Assistant driver Starshina V.N. Mamkin, whose crew destroyed 2 machine gun crews, killed up to 20 Germans, and crushed an anti-tank gun and two dugouts with its tracks received the same medal.

A “For Courage” medal, the most prestigious medal awarded in the Red Army.

Repair crews were also well rewarded. For instance, V.S. Lebedev was awarded the “For Courage” medal for conducting 5 medium repairs and repairing two tanks right on the battlefield. Lieutenant-Technician P.K. Ivanov received a “For Courage” medal for organizing the evacuation of five tanks from the battlefield on July 11th and putting them back in action by July 13th. Driver Junior Sergeant P.M. Vozhanskiy received a “For Courage” medal for staying at his post despite a wound. Radio operator Senior Sergeant D.F. Pugachenko recovered two radio sets from disabled tanks.

Wait and hurry up

Luckily for the 229th Independent Tank Regiment, its enemy was also exhausted. The German 18th Tank Division opposite them was ordered to retreat on July 12th. A lull followed on July 13-14th, which gave time to patch up some of the tanks. Reports from the 74th Rifle Division state that the enemy harassed their front lines with artillery fire, but losses were minimal. In return, Soviet snipers kept the Germans’ heads down. Reconnaissance reported 8 tanks and 12 wheeled vehicles heading to Ponyri.

An order to prepare for another attack was given at 13:00 on July 14th. This time the tanks were supporting infantry from the 360th Rifle Regiment of the 74th Rifle Division. The tanks were ordered to attack with the infantry at 05:30 on the following day. An artillery barrage starting at 05:15 was supposed to soften up the enemy’s defenses.

The 229th regiment took initial positions 2 km east of Sidorovka on the night of July 15th. Since several tanks were put back into action, the regiment was up to 22 combat ready Shermans.

That morning the regiment attacked in the direction of Sidorovka, Pavlovka, and Soglasniy. By 07:00 the infantry had reached Pavlovka and Petrovka. The tanks made it as far as Semenovka without incident, but came under heavy artillery fire upon reaching the Maloarkhangelsk-Protasovo highway and were counterattacked by tanks and artillery shortly after. The regiment lost 3 tanks burned up and 5 knocked out. In return, gunner Junior Sergeant I.T. Antonov claimed to have knocked out one German vehicle.

The infantry also had a rough time. An enemy counterattack supported by four tanks displaced the 360th Rifle Regiment from its positions at 17:00. The infantry had to retreat to a stream running between Protasovo and Pavlovka. At night their commander ordered the regiment to return to Protasovo and fortify on its western outskirts.

A German Pz.Kpfw.IV tank knocked out in the vicinity of Soglasniy. This tank was misidentified as a Tiger.

By 17:00 on the next day the infantry had circled around Protasovo from the west and held positions 500-600 meters south-west of Soglasniy. A group of 19-20 tanks prevented them from moving further. The infantry was not expecting help from its own tanks against them. An order was given to move anti-tank guns out to the front lines for direct fire and prepare man-portable anti-tank weapons: Molotov cocktails and anti-tank grenades. Instead of being used as mobile anti-tank guns, the Shermans supported the infantry’s attacks. The infantrymen were ordered to let the tanks through their lines and then follow them closely without falling behind. This kind of tactic didn’t mean that the Shermans were helpless against enemy armour. For instance, in the battles of July 15-16th the crew of radio operator Sergeant M.T. Mihankin claimed to have knocked out an enemy medium tank.

The 74th Rifle Division claimed to have knocked out two Tigers, an SPG, and two anti-tank guns. There were no enemy tank attacks on that day, although Red Army troops were under heavy artillery fire.

The Shermans finally reached Protasovo by 21:00 on July 16th, but did not take the settlement yet. The advance was stopped at 23:00. The 360th Rifle Regiment was ordered to conduct reconnaissance in the direction of the southern outskirts of Protasovo, set up an observation post, and find a German prisoner with a loose tongue.

Penetration diagram for the 7.5 cm KwK 40. The Sherman was reasonably well protected from the front when facing off against the Pz.Kpfw.IV and StuG 40, but very vulnerable from the sides.

The observation post came in handy on the next day. The enemy resisted fiercely. One M4A2 tank was knocked out west of Protasovo by 18:00. Protasovo was not taken on July 17th either. The bloodied 74th Rifle Division decided to remain in Soglasniy, enveloping it from the south-east and south-west.

The Commander of Armoured and Mechanized Forces of the Central Front criticized the combined action of the 229th regiment and 74th Rifle Division once more. Even though the tanks and infantry reached Protasovo together, the handover of responsibility was clumsy and the reserves were not put to good use.

A flyer showing the M4A2 tank from the front and side. These flyers were issued to Soviet anti-tank gun crews to prevent friendly fire.

The 229th regiment had 10 tanks left, a little over a quarter of its original strength. The infantry also took heavy losses. The 74th Rifle Division had only 275 fighting men left and the 360th Rifle Regiment had only 173. The infantrymen were also tired after two days of nonstop fighting. The division’s documents indicate that the thinned infantry companies could not achieve a decisive success even with sufficient artillery and air support. Officers up to regimental commanders were also killed in these battles, as they had no other choice but to personally rouse their men into battle. Meanwhile, the enemy had heavy artillery and was well entrenched in old Soviet fortifications and knocked out tank husks. There was also a mobile tank destroyer group (the documents refer to them as Ferdinands, which is unlikely) capable of deflecting tank attacks.

The Germans were not as well off as it would seem. A prisoner from the 7th company of the 195th Infantry Regiment revealed that his company was down to 60 fighting men out of 180 and the regiment had been ordered to retreat beyond the river Neruch on July 16th. Based on this information, the commander of the 74th Rifle Division decided to regroup and pursue the enemy, but the tanks did not take part in this attack. On July 18th the 229th regiment was transferred from the 15th Rifle Corps to the 17th.

During its time with the 74th Rifle Division the 229th Independent Tank Regiment lost 14 tanks burned up and 17 knocked out, as well as 117 men. Only 8 tanks remained in action by July 18th. All knocked out tanks were evacuated.

In these battles, Captain D.S. Matveev’s 3rd tank company claimed the destruction of 6 enemy tanks, 2 SPGs, and a tankette, for which he received an Order of the Red Star. Two of these tanks and one SPG were claimed by Lieutenant V.G. Sokolov’s platoon, who also received the same order. Another tank was claimed by company commander Lieutenant S.M. Shuvalov, who was similarly rewarded.

“For Battle Merit”, the second most prestigious medal awarded in the Red Army after “For Courage”.

Many radio operators were commended for maintaining flawless communications. Junior Sergeant D.A. Velichenko was awarded the “For Battle Merit'' medal, Junior Sergeant A.M. Kuligin, Sergeant D.F. Pugachenko, Senior Sergeants M.V Dryabkov and S.D. Zheleznov were awarded “For Courage'' medals. Military Technician 2nd Grade I.S. Meter was awarded a “For Battle Merit '' medal for the repair of 25 Wireless Sets No.19 during the fighting.

Drivers whose tanks made it through the battles without breakdowns were also given medals. Junior Sergeant S.A. Zernov (who also evacuated two tanks from under fire in addition to his excellent driving) and Senior Sergeant I.A. Ivanushkin (also evacuated two tanks) received the “For Battle Merit” medal, Senior Sergeant F.D. Akimov (whose crew also claimed the destruction of a tankette) and Junior Sergeant I.P. Loginov received For Courage medals.

Order of the Red Star, the lowest order issued by the Red Army.

Repair crews were also recognized. Captain S.A. Glukharev received the Order of the Red Star for evacuating 26 tanks from the battlefield and organizing 60 medium and small repairs. Senior Sergeant A.I. Latyshev received the “For Battle Merit '' medal for conducting 7 medium and 11 small repairs as well as instruction of other repairmen in the unit. A group led by Senior Sergeant V.A. Teptsov conducted 8 small and 9 medium repairs, 5 of which were performed under enemy fire. Teptsov and his group all received “For Battle Merit” medals. Lieutenant I.A. Amiradzhibi received a “For Courage '' medal for organizing clearing of 5 passages in minefields and recovery of 7 tanks. Technician-Lieutenant K.A. Arzhankov organized the evacuation and repair of 20 tanks during the fighting. Many drivers who brought up fuel and supplies under enemy fire were also rewarded.

The last Shermans of the Kursk Salient

The 229th Independent Tank Regiment was not left in reserves despite losing three quarters of its tanks. The regiment supported an attack of the 17th Rifle Corps on July 18th, but no meaningful results were achieved. Another attack undertaken on July 20th cost the regiment 4 tanks.

This attrition could not last forever, and so the remaining 10 M4A2 tanks were passed on to the 237th Independent Tank Regiment alongside vehicles from the 84th and 43rd Tank Regiments, which were all recalled to be refitted.

By July 24th the 237th regiment had been assigned to the 70th Army and reported 7 Shermans in working order in addition to 13 T-34 and 7 T-70 tanks. The tanks attacked jointly with infantry from the 188th and 43rd Rifle Regiments at 10:20 on July 25th, taking Novoryzhkovskiy and Krasnoye Znamya without a fight, crossing the Nezhivka stream and taking Pohvistnevo. Spurred on by their success, the tank units pulled out ahead of their neighbours and came under flanking fire from Krasnikovo, Topkovo, and height 260.1. Four M4A2s, three T-34s, and one T-70 burned up as a result and two more M4A2s, five T-34s, and two T-70s were knocked out. Immobilized tanks continued to fire in support of infantry from the 188th Rifle Regiment, which successfully took height 260.1. The tank regiment claimed to have knocked out a Ferdinand and 20 towed guns. In return, the regiment lost 25 tanks knocked out and destroyed, 7 tankers killed, and 22 wounded.

A German soldier inspects a destroyed M4A2 tank.

The last functional M4A2 belonged to company commander Lieutenant Shevchenko whose crew claimed to have destroyed 3 anti-tank guns, 2 dugouts, 1 mortar battery, 5 machine gun nests, and up to 60 soldiers and officers in this battle. For these feats, Shevchenko earned an Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class. The commander of the Sherman platoon Junior Lieutenant G.I. Filimonov earned an Order of the Red Star. A commander of an M4A2 tank, Junior Lieutenant M.A. Mironov, earned a “For Courage” medal. Drivers Sergeants N.E. Nazarenko and the aforementioned Loginov received an Order of the Red Star each for bravely driving their tanks at two SPGs that had blocked the regiment’s path. Assistant drivers Sergeant G.A. Kryakhin and Red Armyman V.P. Levchenko, radio operators Sergeant M.T. Yeremenko and Junior Sergeant A.S. Gusyev, and loaders Senior Sergeant Ya.S. Zorin and Sergeant I.N. Zakharov also received awards for the fighting on July 25th.

Order of the Patriotic War, a highly prized award issued by the Red Army.

On July 26th the regiment was ordered to collect all its tanks in the vicinity of Pohvistnevo and support the attack of the 43rd Rifle Regiment on a nameless hill east of height 260.1. Shevchenko’s tanks (a T-34 and several T-70s in addition to his M4A2) were counterattacked by 8-13 German tanks, but the counterattacks were beaten back. Shevchenko’s M4A2 burned up that day, the T-34 was knocked out and evacuated. There were almost no crew losses, only one NCO was wounded. The regiment claimed to have destroyed one Tiger and one Ferdinand. On July 27th the 106th Rifle Division remained on the defensive. Nine disabled T-34s, four T-70s, and one M4A2 were recovered.

Unlike the 229th regiment’s reports, the story with Tigers makes sense here. During these days the 505th Heavy Tank Battalion was fighting around Novoryzhkovskiy, Pohvistnevo, and Nezhivka. The number of Tigers fell from 19 on July 20th to 3 on July 31st, so it’s possible that the 237th regiment was responsible for one of those losses.

Tactical diagram showing the range at which a Sherman could knock out a Tiger tank. This feat was difficult, but not impossible.

On July 28th the regiment was pulled out into the reserve and concentrated in a forest south of Svetliy Dunay. Knocked out tanks were also towed here. All functional tanks (a T-34, a T-70, and either another T-70 or an M4A2) were transferred to the 251st Tank Regiment on July 28th, the rest of the tanks followed on August 3rd. By this point the sole M4A2 was listed as in need of major repairs.

Even though the 237th regiment’s documents praised the cooperation between their tanks and infantry, the Commander of Armoured and Mechanized Forces of the Central Front judged that the commander of the 237th regiment commanded his tanks exceptional poorly, giving orders by radio from a command post 3-5 km away, making it impossible to organize cooperation between the tanks, infantry, and artillery. No reconnaissance was performed, as a result of which the tanks of the 1st and 2nd companies stumbled into an anti-tank ditch. Instead of deploying the SMG gunner platoon and anti-tank rifle platoon that were in reserve they were used to guard the HQ and rear.

The results of the fighting showed that the key to victory was close cooperation between tanks, infantry, artillery, and reconnaissance. Offering thin side armour of medium tanks to hidden anti-tank gun batteries was not a smart idea. The tendency of the early Sherman tanks to burn also showed itself. The T-34 and T-70 tanks that they fought shoulder to shoulder with burned much less often. Nevertheless, the repair crews of the 229th Independent Tank Regiment showed that a Sherman can be kept running for a long time given sufficient spare parts. British Wireless Sets No.19 also came in handy, as they offered reliable communication in battle. The M4A2 tanks were judged to be as reliable as the T-34, and their career in the Red Army promised to be a long and fruitful one.

This article was originally published on

More information on how Sherman tanks fought in the Red Army and how they were evaluated by Soviet experts can be found in Sherman Tanks of the Red Army by Peter Samsonov, available now.

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